The Mitama Festival | How Yasukuni Honors the Dead

Visitors to the Mitama Festival marvel at the thousands of lanterns at Yasukuni Shrine.

All things considered, Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine is an interesting place. Originally founded by the Meiji emperor, the shrine was first established in 1869 following the conclusion of the Boshin War. Since its inception, Yasukuni Shrine has been dedicated to those who have served in Japan’s military. It is currently home to 2,466,532 men, women, and children as well as various pets.

The shrine continues to pop up on the international radar due to the fact that among the millions enshrined at Yasukuni, there are over a thousand war criminals from World War II. In particular, 14 of these have been identified as “Class-A” offenders and include notorious figures such as Tojo Hideki who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. As such whenever a prominent Japanese politician visits Yasukuni Shrine there are bound to be hostile media conflagrations in the foreign press.

Regardless of where you may fall on the issue, the shrine has a stunningly beautiful summer festival known as the Mitama Festival. Held every year in mid-July at the beginning of Tokyo’s Obon season, the festival is famous for the 30,000 chochin (Japanese lanterns) that adorn the walkway leading up to the main shrine. First celebrated in 1947, the purpose of the festival is to pray to the war dead and give thanks for the lasting peace and prosperity their sacrifices helped to bring. The lanterns are said to honor the fallen that are enshrined within Yasukuni Shrine.

How to Get There

Yasukuni Shrine is located in central Tokyo on the northern end of the Imperial Palace. Here’s a map to Yasukuni Shrine to help you find your way. The easiest way to reach the shrine is to take the Hanzomon Line to Kudanshita Station. From there it is only a few minutes to the entryway path to Yasukuni Shrine. Alternatively if you’re coming from an area that is better connected via the Nanboku Line, Ichigaya Station is also only a mere five minutes away on foot.

Remember to always check Jorudan or a similar service to see which line is the most convenient…

Enjoy the Mitama Festival

Once you have made your way to the shrine, you’ll be in for a real visual treat! While the lanterns pictured above are on display for a few days, they are usually only lit up from 6:00 PM to 9:30 PM. Every year over 300,000 people visit Yasukuni Shrine for the Mitama Festival so the grounds can get pretty crowded at times. In years past they typically had the typical festival vendors peddling all sorts of deliciousness but this year they were strangely absent (though it may have been only due to the rain).

The exact schedule changes every year but expect live performances of traditional Japanese music and the usual processions where energetic Japanese carry the portable shrines. Those visiting the festival will also have a chance to see what is likely Tokyo’s first “Bon Odori” dance of the year. Unlike other Japanese festivals however, the Mitama Festival also has a very high profile police and security presence. With Yasukuni Shrine being at the center of so much international drama and bickering, the government is not willing to take any chances.

The Mitama Festivals has also hosted an unusual and unexpected attraction — an “obake yashiki” (a Japanese haunted house). Given the shrine’s infamy and the rather serious nature of honoring those who fell in service of their country, the haunted house’s presence at the festival can seem out of place. Nevertheless it continues to be a popular attraction every year and helps to lighten what can be an otherwise solemn experience. Who am I to judge?

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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